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Suicide in the Media

by on April 10, 2014

Media coverage of suicide has always been a difficult issue for journalists to report on. Whether its the type of language used, photos used, or general extent of coverage, journalists have struggled and continue to stagger in their ability to successfully report on suicide. Not that there is one specific successful way to report on such a subject, but is there a solution to giving victims and their families the proper coverage they deserve?


A talk by Al Tompkins on the ethical dilemmas surrounding suicide coverage has revealed certain obstacles like language choice “commit suicide” versus “killed himself”, reporting it in the correct realm (should we take the social, mental health, or breaking news route?), and even talking about less mentioned topics in suicide, such as the rising senior suicide rate. Of particular interest during this podcast, was when Tompkins talked about a situation in Pittsburgh when one suicide victim, took hostages at an office and started facebooking his takeover. According to Tompkins, family and friends started talking to him on facebook, trying to get him to change his mind, and meanwhile the police are trying to negotiate with him. In this situation would should a journalist do? Tompkins later goes into how journalists start to take their job of causing minimal harm, to trying to do no harm at all which isn’t our job. He equates it to the removal of cancer, how it hurts but its for the greater good.


As a journalist, do we get online and try to talk to this young man holding the men hostage? The story is there, online, as accessible as can be to a journalist not even in the area, so is it right to even facebook him? Tompkins said that eventually, the victim became upset with everyone commenting, and took his life. If these people hadn’t talked to him, would the police have had a chance to persuade him down? What would you do?



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One Comment
  1. This is a tough situation that has to be taken on a case by case basis. I feel like no matter what, some situations reaching out will be beneficial but other situations will cause harm, like this situation.

    Reaching out on Facebook is something that has always made me uncomfortable. If their personal Facebook (especially a private page) is the only contact, chances are they don’t want be contacted. But in the Tompkins case, the story started on Facebook. As a journalist I would have reached out to people around Tompkins first, and then worked my way to Tompkins through those sources. Chances are the people around Tompkins would know how to deal with him, in turn reducing harm.

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